Parashat Veyeshev

Joan Lenowitz

Just when our own breathing quickens, as Joseph, Jacob’s favorite, is thrown into the pit and then sold off by his treacherous brothers in one of the most suspenseful narratives in the Torah, there comes a pregnant pause. The scene recedes from view, with Joseph on his way to his daring adventures in Egypt, and our attention turns to a vignette of Judah and Tamar, seemingly only tangentially related to the main narrative.

Judah has taken himself a wife from among the Canaanites; she bears him three sons but then dies. Judah chooses Tamar as a wife for the first son Er, but God is displeased with him and shortens his life. Tamar is then given, as a levirate wife, to the second son, Onan with the expectation that he will fulfill his obligation to procreate with Tamar on behalf of his deceased brother. God is displeased with the second son, Onan, for diligently practicing birth control when he is with Tamar, and he joins his brother.

Judah, failing to acknowledge the faults of his own sons, fears that Tamar may be the cause of the untimely death of his children and sends Tamar back to her father’s house, ostensibly until his youngest son, Shelah, grows up.

When Tamar realizes that Judah has no intention of ever making her Shelah’s wife, she cleverly takes things into her own hands. She devises an intrigue consistent with the spirit of cunning of the family she has joined. She disguises herself as a prostitute along the route to Timnah, enticing Judah, who does not recognize her, to sleep with her. Since he wasn’t prepared for this happenstance he does not have appropriate compensation with him and she procures, as security for later payment of a goat, marks of his identity, his seal and his staff.

When her publicly obvious pregnancy is revealed to her father-in-law, he pronounces the death penalty upon her for the sin of adultery, for she is, in effect, still betrothed to Shelah. In this early form of levirate marriage, when there was no option to be released from the obligation (as there is in Deuteronomy 25:5-10) it may be argued that Judah was the one responsible for the continuance of the line, and according to some laws of the region, including Hittite law, it should fall upon him to ‘step up to the plate’ in the absence of an alternative suitable male.

So when, on her way to her death, Tamar tactfully produces the evidence that Judah is the culprit, Judah declares, ‘She is more right than I am.’ (Genesis 38:26) But what does it mean to be ‘more right’? Rashi, the great medieval commentator, is uncomfortable with this translation of tzadekah mimeni though it is consistent with the trope markings for cantillation which join the words in this way. He prefers ‘She is right; it is from me (that she became pregnant.)’ It is not clear exactly what was bothering Rashi here, In reality both of them had engaged in questionable behavior. In fact wasn’t Judah really saying, ‘She is less in the wrong than I am.’ In effect, I failed to fulfill my responsibility in the procreation of a son for my deceased son and she had every right to contrive to do so. Do two wrongs make a right? Perhaps sometimes they do.

Tamar is definitely a righteous individual. Neither the Torah nor commentaries blame her for anything she does. Her modesty, her breeding, and her devotion to God are dwelled upon in Midrash and even Rashi himself extols her for not directly accusing Judah of the deed, which would publicly embarrass him, even though it may mean going to her death. Instead, she subtly provides him with an opportunity to confess and take responsibility for his actions.

But, while Tamar has an important role which she executes admirably, her scope is limited to the family she will raise. Certainly she is more righteous than Judah, but isn’t it easier to be righteous when leadership is not demanded of you? Judah, for all his faults is thrust into leadership from the beginning. We watch as Judah matures in this setting, taking responsibility for his mistake.

Recent ‘leadership’ scandals, including the indictment of the Governor of Illinois and his stunningly cavalier words about his own entitlement, should teach us that without a sense of one’s own accountability it is truly impossible to be a ‘leader.’ Sadly, we have too many in public office in our country who do not qualify as leaders.

So, Judah is at least on his way toward leadership. He has become reflective enough from the tragic loss of his own sons to have great compassion for his father, as he will demonstrate in the later encounters with Joseph in Egypt. In fact the placement of the story of Tamar and Judah here is clearly intentional, one purpose being to interlock the fates of Judah and Joseph as individuals and as symbolic leaders of the two later kingdoms, the Northern Kingdom referred to as House of Joseph and the Southern Kingdom the House of Judah (Zechariah 10:6). Judah here becomes creditable as the source of the name for the Jewish people.


Joan Lenowitz is a rabbinical student at AJR.